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  • Writer's pictureSarah S.

Travel For Cheap Around San Diego

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

San Diego Area On a Budget

We have two kids so we love to get out there and show them all the cool things living near San Diego has to offer. Of course, this is usually done on a tight budget, so we try to make travel affordable and as adventurous and fun as we can.

On The Road

Typically on weekends, we are spontaneous and don’t have a set plan. We will just have a leisurely breakfast on a Saturday morning, followed by, “let’s go to xyz today.” We have boys, so they love to be able to run free, get dirty, and anything involving rocks and sticks is a plus.


Two of our favorite activities are hiking and the outdoors. That checks off a lot from my list above. We lived in Temecula, and there are a few local easy walking trails, but mostly we drove 30-60 minutes for more challenging or recommended hiking day trips. A hot tip to travel for cheap and maximize the fun is to bring a picnic lunch. It beats hearing, “I’m hungry” after just getting there.

  1. Santa Margarita River Trail, Fallbrook, CA. We just love this spot for a close, quick drive from Temecula. We have learned to bring bathing suits, especially around summertime. The river runs along the trail and the kids love to go into the water to try and catch fish and play. There are lots of trees for a fairly shady walk. The kids love any excuse to go off the trail to hike over or around boulders. But all-in-all the trail is easy to follow.

  2. Deer Springs Trail Head or Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail in Idyllwild, CA. Pretty much any of the trails surrounding the Idyllwild Nature Center are winners with our family. First of all, the drive to Idyllwild is beautiful. We feel like we’ve left Southern California and entered Pennsylvania. There are loads of pine trees, cabins, and a small, mountain town feel that is not native to this area.

The little downtown has quaint little shops with curios, candy, ice cream, coffee, diners, and restaurants. In summer, we like to get ice cream and walk around town. In winter, there is usually enough snow to go sledding and warm up at the local coffee shop with a hot chocolate and a board game.

Hiking can be as easy or challenging as you like. There are boulders for the kids to climb and collect sticks. But there are leisurely trails right around the nature center. Another bonus is the nature center. You have to check it out. It is full of taxidermy animals, live animals, books, puzzles, and loads of hands-on activities enjoyable for young and old, as well as a gift shop.

  1. Torrey Pines GliderPort, La Jolla, CA. This is just a cool spot to bring a picnic and watch the paragliders. There is a small counter order cafe with an outdoor spot with tables and bar stools that overlook the ocean and paragliders. We bring our lunch, sit, and enjoy the views. When we are ready, we walk down to the path just off the cafe to hike around and climb down sand dunes where the kids love to play for hours. Just be warned, if you follow the hike down the bluffs to the water you will run into Black’s Beach, a nude beach that we stumbled upon, had some laughs, and some explaining to do. ; < )

  2. Iron Mountain Trail, Poway, CA. For a good mix of easy and challenging hikes to keep the family engaged, building rock towers, and plenty of boulders to scale if your kids so choose, this is the place. We went in spring before the summer heat, as there is not much shade. If your children are little you can always turn around at any time, but our 4-year-old at the time, kept up for quite a while, and can’t wait to go again. There are beautiful views of the mountains. Just pop your picnic in a backpack. We climbed up a big boulder that had an opening at the top and enjoyed a meal with a view and privacy. Bonus, the kiddies were tired out by the time we got to the car. Silence is golden.

  3. Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, CA. Beautiful vistas, mountains, plains, and wildflowers can be seen here. You may even spot a coyote every now and then. We frequent the Santa Rosa Plateau because it is conveniently located near Temecula and has dozens of options from short, easy strolls, to more lengthy or challenging hikes. There are biking and equestrian trails, too.

Our kids love going into the historic adobe buildings dating back to 1846. There is a small nature center and a clerk who can offer advice, maps of the trails, and if there was enough rain in the year to catch the seasonal vernal pools.

We have come here just to do photoshoots at sunset because of the amazing natural backdrops. There is not much shade while hiking and it can be very hot in the summer so pack your hat, sunscreen, and water. Be advised, the reserve does ask a fee of $4 per adult pedestrian and $3 for each child ages 12 and under. Check their website to be up to date on current prices and a plethora of information about the reserve.

  1. Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, Julian, CA. While I have not personally hiked at this location as of yet, it is on my list. We do love to come for a visit to this quaint little mountain town. It is a great day trip. Julian is about 50 miles Northeast of San Diego and about an hour from Temecula. It is a historic gold mining town sheltered between oak and pine trees. See below for our comment on day trips.

Some Of Our Top Day Trips

Downtown Julian, CA. Julian is bustling with charm from its antique and novelty shops, candy and toy stores, boutique clothing stores, art galleries and homemade soaps and crafts, restaurants, and of course, apple pie storefronts!

Julian is known for its apple pies, which are sold even around stores in Temecula. We like to go to their walk-up shops for a fresh slice with whipped cream. Be advised, you may just want to buy a whole pie and get extra forks (definitely more economical)! Check out more on Julian in the hiking paragraph above.

Adventure Playground, Irvine, CA. Travel for cheap doesn’t get better than this place. The kids love to go to this park. The adventure park has so many cool things to offer. Water pump stations, a stream that kids can play in and get dirty, giant Lego blocks, concrete slides, an art wall. There is a nook area where you can play ping pong, nestled alongside free books to read and bean bags chairs if kids just want to chill out. You walk in through the arches and sign in. The best part, no money is needed.

When you are ready to leave that area, there is another playground just across the parking lot. It is a short walk and a fun little change of pace for the kids. There are tennis, basketball, and racquetball courts right next to the playground. The whole complex is a fun way to spend the day. Just be sure to bring a bathing suit or change of clothes in case they get wet or dirty. Bring any balls, racquets, frisbees that you have lying around, and of course, the ever-popular picnic basket.

Irvine Spectrum, Irvine, CA. Let me start by writing, I have never gone to the Adventure Park, and Irvine Spectrum on the same day, but you could if you choose. They are a 10-minute drive from each other. I have always made an outing of them on separate occasions. However, they could easily be combined to be one fun-filled experience.

The Irvine Spectrum is an outdoor mall, promenade, entertainment extravaganza. We went during Christmas and had so much fun with the kids. There is a lot to offer in the way of entertainment, dining, shopping, and music. How is this travel for cheap you ask? It is all in the eye of the beholder. You can make it as affordable as comfortable for you. For us, that meant bringing (you guessed it), our own food and snacks, our kids love to eat. It may sound gauche, but we do what works for our family. We tailgated before leaving the car. The kids brought their own wallets with their cash in case they wanted to buy or do something. They know the drill, so we don’t usually get bombarded with the “gimmees.”

We did get coffee and tea and hung out by one of the beautiful water features listening to an amazing acoustic guitar player serenading the crowds with soft Christmas music. They have an incredible Ferris wheel called the Giant Wheel and a carousel. Check their website for pricing. Also, onsite is a movie theater, comedy club, and loads of dining options. Sometimes there are events such as the Endless Summer Series, so you can always check their site for info on that.

La Jolla, CA. I know I mentioned La Jolla in the hiking section of this article. But, we go on other occasions to hang out. We usually park in front of the La Jolla Recreation Center. First of all, parking, for up to four hours, is free on the same side of the street as the rec center. Across the street, it is only free two-hour parking.

The rec center has tennis and basketball courts, playgrounds, picnic tables, and restrooms. Although it could use some updating, the kids love it just the same. We eat lunch, play for a while, and then head down to visit the seals, explore the tide pools, and splash in the water. The kids love to walk around the beach exploring the caves and getting wet.

Old Town San Diego, CA. If you want to learn some history, enjoy a margarita, explore crafty and souvenir shops, or purchase items with a Mexican flair this is the place to be. In the plaza, Fiesta De Reyes, there is a stage that constantly has live entertainment, including live mariachi, and beautiful Folklorico dancing, completely complimentary. You can sit and relax, or walk around and listen. Click the link above for schedules and performance times.

While there, take a walk through the Cosmopolitan Hotel. It is an amazing, Victorian-style hotel. The grounds are filled with fresh flowers and vegetation.

Also, free to tour is the Casa De Aguirre and Convent Building. There is free parking in the area which you can Google, always a bonus in San Diego.

Carlsbad Beach, Carlsbad, CA. is definitely, our go-to when we want to have a beach day. It is about a 45-minute drive from Temecula. If you click the link it will give you options for different sections of beach access throughout the town. Our personal favorite is North Carlsbad beach. The water is calm, it is close to Carlsbad Village, and fairly easy to find a parking spot. We just park on the street (free) in the vicinity of Lincoln and Oak Ave. and eventually, we get a spot if not immediately. We walk a few blocks down to the water.

We usually bring lunch or dinner, but occasionally we like to take the kids to Pizza Port for dinner right in Carlsbad only blocks from where we are parked. They have a huge selection of local beers. It is loud, busy, and hard to find a seat. That being said, it is fun! They have an arcade area off to the side with maybe 5 or 6 games, Cafeteria-style seating, and TV screens with various games playing. If you can get there closer to 5 pm, you will beat the rush that will soon ensue. If not, just go relax, and have a local beer. Even their root beer is really good.

Go Get Your Travel For Cheap

So there you have it. Some ideas to check out in Riverside and San Diego Counties for cheap travel with the family. Hope you are inspired to get out there explore and take advantage. It is a great way to get out for the day. You might get lucky and not even get one complaint. Does “are we there yet count?”

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